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Shadow Woman

Melancholia. A jaundice soul. I am reminded of the shadow woman from the Yellow Wallpaper. In the daytime, she is a mere invisible rustle, but at night, she manifests. Rampant, chaotic, distressed. She flees, but from what because, after all, she is at wall and paper, no escape. No escape.

This is what it feels. Tonight, I listened to a podcast by APM: Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett entitled The Soul in Depression. It confronts the stigma of depression, its poor contextual meaning, and how the voices of those touched by depression seem to go unheard. This is a subject plaguing my mind as of late. For several weeks, I’ve been taking an anti-anxiety medication. After some psychological and emotional episodes and confrontations at work, I felt I had two choices: quit or start seeing a psychiatrist. Though the first option almost was triumphant, as in I removed all personal possessions from my desk, had a serious, emotional conversation with my boss, and then left for a ‘personal’ day, having no backup plan, job, or sufficient savings to quit…I am, for now, stuck and eventually returned to my cubicle. But I haven’t put back up any pictures or returned personal keepsakes. I prefer to leave my desk barren. I have one foot out the door and there is no intention of going back. 

I chose a doctor based on my insurance’s list, and found myself sitting before a tall, lanky man whose shoes somehow seemed too big. But later I determined that wasn’t the case, it’s just the way he positions them, at times turning them towards each other when he begins an impassioned tangent, or how one dangles like a weight is dragging the toe down. He scribbles on yellow paper, and in my mind, I joked privately that he was likely drawing cartoons or sketching out a reverie. Though, I knew he was outlining my family history, my relationships with relatives, and my history with anxiety. At the end of the first meeting he asked if I had any questions. Yes, but not about me…do you ever see a therapist? And he laughed, amused by the query. “On occasion. I wouldn’t trust me if I didn’t.” His candidness and honesty from that one question was the only reason I decided to go back. 

So, for the time being, I’ve chosen to be put on medication. The doctor left it up to me. But the struggle over this decision has raised awareness of my own prejudice against psychological medications, the people who take them, and my skewed yet fully valid reasons for wanting to evade chemical manipulation. I had an intense anxiety about taking an anti-anxiety drug. 

My greatest fear is how this would effect me creatively. If I tamper with how I am innately, then how could that not alter a part of me that seems so heavily rooted in my shifted emotional state, perception of the world, etc. No matter the benefits, I will never sacrifice that. And a part of me feels that the sedation of people through medication is in essence slaughtering thousands of potential artists. This is a heavy bias. I openly admit that, and there are people who oppose this idea as well. Indeed, it isn’t necessarily fair to think that being an artist entails suffering, depression, running the emotional and psychological gambit, but it’s hard not to see a correlation when reading up in the lives of some of the world’s most famous artists regardless of their medium of choice. 

Another issue was that in deciding to take medication, I would undoubtedly have to confront that something is wrong. And I am not comfortable with acknowledging this yet. 

I have had relatively intense anxiety most of my life. The first incidence I can recall was soon after my parents divorced. I was six or seven and suddenly found that I could no longer stay composed in class. One second I was fine, and then an onslaught of feeling overwhelming, separate, anxious, it’d be difficult to breathe, and then I’d be sitting at my desk crying. Teachers had no idea what to do. I’d have to hear my father’s or mother’s voice, or have one of them come up to school just to hold me for several minutes, soothe me. Halfway through the school year, I was moved into a split grade class with several other students. And though I should have been distracted by the challenge of learning material from my grade level and the one above me, I could only stay calm if I looked at a picture of my mother that I kept in my desk. Anytime I’d start to sense those strained emotions, I’d just have to concentrate on her image, and after several minutes, I’d be fine. 

But even at home, my anxiety problems grew worse. I could no longer sleep in my bedroom for fear that if I was away from my parents that something would happen to them. I’d have nightmares of them dying in fires, crying out for help and I could do nothing because I was outside the flames. If left alone in my bedroom, it wouldn’t be long before I was screaming, crying out. And no matter how much they tried to be firm, to keep me in my own bed even with direct orders from our family counselor, I would always find myself at their bedside. The one time my mother locked me out, I pounded on her door for hours, crying, screaming how horrible she was and all I needed was for her to be with me so I’d know she was safe. I don’t remember if I finally fell asleep at her door or the couch, but I know I didn’t return to my bed. And this was how my life was for a few years, until my mother’s death. After she died, I never had problems sleeping in my room or staying at school. But those years of intense anxiety left a deep scar, and though I would fight back anxious feelings if they arose, I always wondered if working through it was enough. 

For the past two years, levels of anxiety equivalent to the magnitude I felt as a child have reemerged. The heart of it stemming from a detrimental relationship that helped propel me into the throws of an existential crisis whose edge I had been teetering on for some time. And the addition of accepting a position at a job I didn’t desire and don’t enjoy just contributed to feelings of shame, failure, anger, struggle, fear, and a great sense of Lost. 

Everything of the person I had been before that critical point seemed to evaporate. And what I was left with was the shadow woman. In the midst of an emotional hurricane, unable to sift through emotions, feel focused in heart, soul, and thought, I was a raw nerve. And all I wanted was to be alone, to cry, to be held. 

But, there is a side of depression and the emotions entailed that goes unnoticed by those never experiencing it. In actuality, this state is often the deluge of emotion, an inability to dam gates to keep it in, and though in a state of such darkness, it is also a period of intense feeling. And for the first time in my life, I was experiencing Feeling, it was so pungent to every sense that it was the overabundance of emotions that crippled me. I had become hypersensitive to not only my emotions, but to others’ as well. 

For that reason, I found myself on the verge of panic attacks in public or at work. To be so acutely in tuned with emotions is difficult to articulate. But to stand in an aisle with several people around and feel simultaneously frustration, joy, confusion, sadness…to be assaulted by an array of feeling at the same time just paralyzed me. It’d be difficult to breathe; I’d start wheezing lightly, and that tightening around my chest like my heart was in a vice, all I could do when this happened was flee. And on a few occasions, I left my cart or items and just left the store as fast as I could. But if this happens at work, I just can’t walkout and come back when I feel balanced or calm again. Instead, I’d have to cry in my car on lunch break or claim to be searching for an old file or document that was held in a locked storage room just so I know no one would seem me in such a state. But then strained work relationships with coworkers, bosses, and the stress of not only doing my job but fixing others’ mistakes, checking behind others was and is the dominant reasons for my dissatisfaction with my job. After my first session, I realized that almost the entire office is on a medication or self medicates through other means. I finally saw that I wasn’t necessarily innately crazy, but this job seems to have that effect on many of the people in it and talking with others outside the store I work at, medication or high levels of alcohol consumption are a bit of the norm for those in my field. 

So, my final decision is to get out. I decided that medication is short term, that I will not have my life be ‘tolerable’ with the help of a pill, but that I must recognize that on a deeper level I am troubled by not doing something I love to the point that it is destructive to me in many ways. But the podcast brought to light the awareness that came through this period of great pain for me, and how now on the other end, I see how beneficial it is to Feel, to be hyperaware of the state of others emotionally. It is that shadow woman that finally came into form, like a veil lifted, to find that in her was a light, a strength. That perhaps what I had perceived as distressed, as chaotic, was not the nature of her at all. Because it seems she is much more free than I had been. Wild and untamed, she feels, she sees, she fights to understand even when it might break her because that is Life, and in that is beauty, in that is spirit and spiritual. 

And I think of the woman, tearing down the yellow wallpaper, trying to free the shadow woman though in reality, she was freeing herself.

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